Just over a decade ago, Ginni Rometty made a tough assessment. For all of its past successes, IBM wasn’t positioned for the future. Rometty, who’d just been promoted as President and CEO of the 100-year-old tech giant in 2012, came to terms with the disappointing state of affairs and then decided to shake things up. A lot.
During her tenure, she reinvented 50% of IBM’s portfolio with a focus on the cloud, DEI, AI, and quantum computing. Along the way, she won numerous accolades and honors, including being named Fortune’s No. 1 Most Powerful Woman three years in a row and being appointed an Officer in the French Légion d’Honneur.
After retiring from IBM in 2020, however, Rometty wasn’t content to rest on her laurels. Today, she serves on multiple boards and co-chairs OneTen, a coalition committed to upskilling, hiring, and promoting one million Black individuals by 2030 into family-sustaining jobs and careers.
Sitting down with Joanne Gordon, former Forbes journalist who collaborated with Rometty on her book, Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World, Rometty reflects on how she redefined power as a way to drive meaningful change.
On What She Learned from Strong Women
“I was raised by three really strong women but all had a tragedy in their life. My great grandma was the last person in her family alive to come here from Belarus during World War I. She would clean bathrooms in the Wrigley building overnight, never speaking English and saving every dime, which would one day save our home.
“My grandma would be a widow twice over by the age of 47, and she’d be making lampshades around the clock. She took every dime to be sure that I had a dress for kindergarten. And then my mom would have her own tragedy. My father abandoned us. My mom was 34 with four children. She had never worked. She had no education past high school. But what would follow in the years to come would be us watching her get a little bit of education to get a job, a little bit more to get a little better job, and then a little better job.
“The net of all of those strong women was I learned that one, hard work makes stuff better, and I know that is so basic. The second thing I learned is don't let anyone define you other than yourself. She didn't want to stay on food stamps. She was so determined… And then last but not least, that access and aptitude are two different things. [My mom] wasn't dumb. She just didn’t have access to anything. I, now going forward, spend a lot of time on that topic, that there are really talented people out there that we need to bring in and have new pathways into our work.”
On Championing the Skills-First Movement
“When I was CEO trying to find cyber talent, I couldn’t find it. Then it was serendipity when I walked into a meeting on corporate social responsibility. They're like, ‘Look at this great work that we're doing with a high school and a community college and teaching them things that are applicable. We told them in six years, you get an associate degree, and if we have a job, we'll hire you.’ I’m like, ‘We only hire college graduates but let's give it a try.’ As we kept moving, we found an unbelievable talent pool that was new.
“These people, primarily from underrepresented areas, are a completely diverse workforce, they just didn't have access to some of the education, just like my mom. But it didn't mean they didn't have the aptitude and ability. Fast forward, we'd help found 300 of these schools and about 150,000 kids. A lot of our jobs have been re-credentialed and many job descriptions were rewritten so that we would hire you for your skill, not just your degree.
“We had over-credentialed so many jobs. It's an easy tick box on hiring to say, ‘Got a college degree?’ And yet 65% of Americans don't have one, and 80% of Black Americans do not have one. I’ve felt so blessed to find this pool of new employees. But, this isn't just about new employees. As I reflected on how we were re-skilling, all IBMers were growing new skills. So this is a culture where it’s skills-first for everybody. And, I am not saying I don't believe in a college degree. I went to Northwestern. I am a Vice Chair at Northwestern. But a really important notion I learned is that where you start should not determine where you end. And we all have different starting points. As an employer, if you offer different on-ramps, I am telling you, you will be so delighted with the workforce you’ll build.
“I am now really working on making this a movement, across the world. Great companies like Bank of America, Delta, Cleveland Clinic, General Motors, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, so many are all really doing the hard work because you don't buy talent, you build it.”
On Driving Change at IBM
”You have to have a learning culture, but you’ve got to help people change how work gets done in your company. I think the analogy was, if I told you to run a marathon and I gave you hiking boots, that's not a really fair thing to do, right? Me as your manager, your boss, the leader, I’ve got to do something. People don't do bad things by nature. They don't move slow because they're like, let's go slow. Not true. That's a product of all the processes and everything else you put in place. And so that would lead us down a journey, a very multi-year journey, of both design thinking and implementing agile and net promoter score, but at a scale of hundreds of thousands of people. The lesson is that “how" you change, versus just “what" you change matters.
“And a lesson for a lot of big things you undertake is if you take them as a hobby, they never really change a company unless you really authentically believe in them. And that was true for design thinking. It was true for net promoter score. I'm doing it on a scale of hundreds of thousands and the best way people learn all this is experiential.”
On Establishing Trust in AI
“When people say, ‘Well, what is the biggest challenge of this technology?’ I'm like, it's not the technology. It's people. I can remember talking about AI ethics and talking about principles of trust and transparency 10 years ago, five years ago. I'm like, ‘Wow, this is not going over great. No one's really paying attention.’
“[If] you're experimenting with Chat GPT, etc., just keep in mind the upsides and the downsides of these technologies. The technology just reflects the humanity that created it. So, understand who trained it or if you're training someone else's, are they using your data and getting your secrets? Building trust in the technology is why I think it's been so difficult the last 10 years to see real progress.
“Henry Kissinger said, that history shows when people are fearful of something, and they don't understand it. They revolt. AI's at that moment. I'm a believer, though, that it has a great upside. I have always believed it will change every job for the better. It'll make each of us better, but it will really matter how you implement it.”
On Pushing Past Comfort
“When people say, what’s one lesson to share from all your history, it would be that growth and comfort never coexist. Every time I was put in a new position, I would always be like, ‘I'm not ready for that. Let me tell you the 10 things I cannot do.’ My husband would observe this year after year, job after job. Maybe 10 years into my career, I was offered a big job. I went to the interview. I told the man, ‘I'm not sure. I really would like to go home and think about it.’ And I went home and I told [my husband]. He said, ‘Gin, I know you. You'll go learn it all and you'll be fine. And in six months you'll be like, Oh, I’ve got to do something else.’
“In my mind, that crystallized that phrase: that growth and comfort will never coexist. And I can't tell you how well that has served me. When I am most nervous, I'm like, Okay, I am going to get to the other side and I am going to be better. I am going to know more. This doesn't last forever.”
On What It Means to Have ‘Good Power’
“I have three simple tenets: The first is that good power means you run toward tension. I know that most people want to run away from tension or conflict. Run toward it, because if you run toward it, you unite things and you don’t divide them.
“The second part is, I don't care how bad [the feedback] is, you treat people with respect and you motivate them not with fear, but with respect. And then the third part is to celebrate progress, not perfection. I feel the world gets pretty divided when people stake out it's all this or it's all that. And you'll never achieve either side of this if you don't celebrate progress. That’s your goal: One more step forward.”
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